The rest of our time in Rome (at least, in the first part of our trip) was a series of highs and lows. By the third full day I was getting desperate for some protein, and after we experienced the Campo di Fiori market (way cool – I got some awesome photos, lost to the ether) we found a restaurant that had exactly what I needed – an “ensalata ricca” – fresh green salad with eggs, mozarella, tomatoes, tuna, all kinds of good stuff. Dan said that while watching me consume that salad he also saw my mood take a 180 degree turn for the better. MLE needs food, but she most especially needs good lean protein and not an abundance of carbs, to keep her blood sugar stable. It was a great lunch, though it cost more than I would have liked (he had pasta, and we split a chicken dish, and we had wine), and after my blood sugar and mood returned to normal stability, we wandered through the old Jewish Ghetto looking for the synagogue. We never did find it, but we did find these other cool old ruins just hanging out in the middle of the city. The rain got steadily heavier, and people disappeared indoors, so it felt like we had the whole city to ourselves.
We walked through the city passing major landmarks (the tridente, up the Spanish steps, the street of four fountains) to a place recommended by Simon; a church containing the bones of thousands of Capuchin monks which had been placed into interesting tableaux, and also along the walls and ceiling of the rooms. Some bones had even been made into chandeliers. The place didn’t charge but just requested donations, and we were out of the rain for a while while Dan drew some of the bones (specifically, a child’s bones holding a scythe and scales also made out of bones, with wings made out of bones). The rain didn’t let up at all as we walked north and east trying to find another cool church recommended in our guidebook. “Further up xyz street,” we came to realize, meant “a really long way up this street, far past where the maps in the book or any of the maps we have with us depict.” This was one of the annoying things about our Rough Guide Rome – if you want to visit some of the places they list, they don’t always have addresses and they list places that are not on any of the maps. We trudged through the rain getting more and more wet and more and more discouraged, as it grew darker and colder. Many of the sidewalks collected water to the point where my shoes and pants were soaked through. Eventually we bought some really overpriced cough drops (trying to buy something that would help Dan’s cough) and asked directions to the church of the pharmacist. “Another 800 meters,” he answered. We gave up and turned around, heading back toward the area shown on our map. It’s too difficult to navigate a strange city (especially one as old as Rome with streets as irregular and narrow) in the dark, in the rain, with no map. We never did make it to that church or the amazingly cool catacombs that supposedly lay beneath it.
I was really glad we were staying in that hotel that night. When we got back and unpacked everything from our daypacks and changed into dry clothes, Dan realized that his sketchbook had gotten pretty wet. He was really upset about it, but I suggested that he use the hairdryer in the bathroom to dry it out and it worked pretty well – the pages are still kind of wrinkly but none of the ink ran, so the book was still viable. My shoes took three days to dry, even with the help of the hair dryer; I was really glad I’d brought a second (though less comfortable walking on cobblestones) pair. The next morning we took advantage of the free breakfast offered by the hotel (something we didn’t realize was available before), and it was one of the best breakfast spreads I’d ever seen in a European hotel or hostel. There were multiple kinds of breads and rolls and pastries, meats and cheeses, nutella, jam, three kinds of cereal, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, and a machine that would make a variety of coffee, juice, and tea-related beverages. All for free! We waited around in our hotel room for most of the morning, hoping the rain would stop, and it did (eventually).
When we went into Rome, we realized it was Epiphany – the 12th day of Christmas, a holiday for Italians, so many things were closed. We spent some time wandering around the Trastavere neighborhood, eating some pretty good pizza and enjoying the sights. Eventually we meandered to another part of the city to find a gelato place famous for a particular gelato-based dessert called Death by Chocolate. It was worth every penny we paid, and we watched the Epiphany goings-on in the piazza with three fountains, a carnival for the holiday. There were booths selling witch dolls on strings, witch masks, and brooms.(While we saw plenty of Santas climbing buildings when we were in Rome, Italy’s tradition is for La Befana, the good witch, to bring toys to children on the eve of Epiphany as she flies around looking for the baby Jesus). There were booths selling all manner of candy and these enormous donuts. Small children were enjoying huge candied apples, and everyone was in a festive mood because it was a holiday and the rain had stopped. Italians were on holiday for one more day, and many of them were gathered in the typical tourist places. Dan stood drawing Trevi fountain while I watched tourists of all stripes, but mostly Italians, standing next to the fountain but facing away, tossing coins over their shoulders for luck and to ensure a return to Rome. When Dan was finished with his drawing, we tossed in a couple of coins ourselves.
We completed our tour of the city at Termini station where we bought our train tickets to Florence and then found a suggested restaurant in our guidebook near the Coliseum. That meal was probably the best we had in Rome; I had a fantastic minestrone soup and Dan had a homemade linguine bolognese. We split a piece of lasagne that was to die for; perfect melting layers of fresh pasta, cheese, and a sauce so rich and flavorful yet light that put to shame every lasagne either of us had ever experienced. It was quite warm inside, as they had a pizza oven going and a guy efficiently rolling out and tossing dough, spreading with sauce and fresh mozzarella, and adding toppings as necessary. Each pizza was a work of art. The service left quite a bit to be desired, and the tiramisu was just okay, but that lasagne – oh!
Our last free hotel breakfast was equally as good, and we packed and checked out of our hotel, took the train into the city and checked into our hostel (dorm beds were 8 euro each that night, far less than before the holiday). After our luggage had been squared away, we set out to do more exploration of the city, heading back to the San Lorenzo area, seeing friendly stray cats all over the place in the cemetary we’d tried to see a few days before (the church, alas, was not open). It was a beautiful and moving cemetary, and very interesting to see the variety of gravesites, tombs, and headstones – in one area, it was set up almost like a military cemetary, with the graves of soldiers who died in World War Two. Other parts of the cemetary reminded me quite a bit of the Catholic cemetary in Louisville we visited with EEK when we were there in July.
After the cemetary, we found lunch in a restaurant nearby, which turned out to be very good. I was feeling mighty poorly at this point and we split a liter of real sugar Coke that made my throat far less painful. The tiramisu we shared for dessert was what I’d been waiting over seven years to have again – it was phenomenally good. We hung out by the old city wall a while so Dan could draw and I made him do some awesome madlibs my cousin had given me for Christmas. We went back to our hostel, which had one of the weirdest setups I’d ever seen, and were shown to our room – in a completely different building, up and through a courtyard in an apartment with a sign on the door that said “pink palace.” There were only three beds in our room, and nobody stayed in the third bed, so we had the room to ourselves. Neither of us felt very well, so we relaxed for a while before going out and exploring a nearby church, the Santa Maria Nuovo. While we didn’t have to pay to get in, there was a machine in which one could deposit euro coins in order to illuminate various artwork around the inside of the church. Someone chose to light up a particularly beautiful mosaic while we were exploring, for which I was very glad. It was a thoroughly lovely church and felt much more spiritual and holy than St. Peter’s Basilica had, as it wasn’t a series of homages to popes but instead just full of beauty dedicated to God.
One of the reasons we’d chosen to stay at this particular hostel, aside from its proximity to Termini station, was that they offered “free dinner and free breakfast.” There wasn’t any common area in the hostel, just a little vestibule where the computer and intake area were, and some rooms full of bunk beds. I wondered whether there was another room somewhere. When we arrived for “free dinner” we found that no, in fact, there was no other room, and the little ten by five area was stuffed to the gills with young backpacker types, all drinking “free wine” (horrible rotgut) and holding flimsy thin plastic bowls. There was no room for us, so we were instructed to sit on someone’s bed in one of the dorm rooms by ourselves. Eventually we were served some sort of broccoli-ish soup, which tasted OK but was terribly hot and impossible to hold while standing/sitting. Several people spilled. After the soup, there was a serving of the worst pasta I’ve ever eaten, with a watery pink sauce, carrots, peas, and potatoes all mixed in. I ate three bites and promptly threw it away having an acute case of indigestion from the rotgut and the soup. We couldn’t really socialize with anyone, since there was no room in the vestibule and nobody else in the room with us, so we just left and fell asleep super early wondering what surprises awaited us at “free breakfast.”